BATON ROUGE, La. – The federal government has moved nearly a quarter-million Hurricane Katrina (search) victims into hotel rooms, mobile homes or other housing — but more than 22,000 people remain in shelters, the head of the relief effort said.
The news dampened hopes that the government could meet its self-imposed deadline to empty shelters of hurricane victims. President Bush (search) set a mid-October goal for getting everyone out, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was shooting for Oct. 15.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen (search) said nobody would be forced out of shelters Saturday. In the meantime, FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration will help the remaining evacuees find housing.
"We are on track to get all of the Katrina evacuees out of temporary shelters, into a more permanent housing solution, pending their long-term housing goals," Allen said Wednesday. "We think we're on the right path, we're headed that way."
The number in shelters across the nation peaked at more than 270,000 on Sept. 8, Allen said. He said the plan to empty the shelters was delayed in part because Hurricane Rita swept the region just days after Katrina.
Long-term temporary housing still must be found for at least 400,000 other Katrina victims now living in hotels or with friends or family. FEMA is working to put them in travel trailers, mobile homes or apartments until they find permanent homes.
"Right now, being in a shelter or being in a hotel is somewhat a bridge to nowhere," Allen said.
As of Wednesday, the American Red Cross had 161 shelters for hurricane victims housing 17,837 people, most of them in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Millian.
"As long as there's a need for emergency shelters, we're there to provide them," Millian said.
A FEMA program reimbursing the Red Cross expires Oct. 24, but Allen said that could be extended.
Moving Katrina victims into longer-term housing has been fraught with delays that FEMA has attributed in part to the unprecedented scope of Katrina's destruction and to Rita hitting southwestern Louisiana and Texas in late September.
One of Louisiana's largest shelters is set to close Friday. Baton Rouge's River Center held as many as 6,000 people just after Katrina hit on Aug. 29. On Wednesday, it had fewer than 500.
Many residents were being moved to a FEMA trailer park near Baker, La., which opened a week ago. The park holds more than 570 small vacation trailers and is laid out with street lights, gravel roads and sewer service. It is a prototype for what FEMA hopes to do at other sites under construction or being planned.
The red tape involved with acquiring land, getting local permits and sometimes overcoming local residents' and governments' concerns have been hurdles, though, as has transporting the temporary homes to people with private property.
The federal government ordered 125,000 campers and mobile homes as housing for hurricane victims. But only about 6,700 are now occupied, while more than 9,000 others sit unused at government staging sites in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, said FEMA spokesman James McIntyre.
In some case, campers have been sent back because no one came to claim them. In Alabama, 200 unoccupied travel trailers were returned to the staging areas by state parks because not enough people were interested.
Ben Truong, meanwhile, has been waiting, living with his parents, aunt and a couple of dogs on their shrimp boat near Biloxi, Miss., and running the boat's engine to power a generator.
"What's killing us is we're burning the diesel that makes our living," the 34-year-old said. "If something doesn't happen ... we are going to lose everything."